Anchoring Our Beliefs

The psychological principle of anchoring is most commonly discussed in terms of our irrational decision making when purchasing items. However, Jonah Lehrer stresses that anchoring is more wide-ranging than this and is in fact “a fundamental flaw of human decision making”.

As such, Lehrer believes that anchoring also effects our beliefs, such that our first reaction to an event ‘anchors’ our subsequent thoughts and decisions, even in light of more accurate evidence.

Consider the ash cloud: After the cloud began drifting south, into the crowded airspace of Western Europe, officials did the prudent thing and canceled all flights. They wanted to avoid a repeat of the near crash of a Boeing 747 in 1989. […]

Given the limited amount of information, anchoring to this previous event (and trying to avoid a worst case scenario) was the only reasonable reaction. The problems began, however, when these initial beliefs about the risk of the ash cloud proved resistant to subsequent updates. […]

My point is absolutely not that the ash cloud wasn’t dangerous, or that the aviation agencies were wrong to cancel thousands of flights, at least initially. […] Instead, I think we simply need to be more aware that our initial beliefs about a crisis – those opinions that are most shrouded in ignorance and uncertainty – will exert an irrational influence on our subsequent actions, even after we have more (and more reliable) information. The end result is a kind of epistemic stubbornness, in which we’re irrationally anchored to an outmoded assumption.

The same thing happened with the BP oil spill.